The Monstrous Femininity of Maureen St. Vincent

LOS ANGELES — Why does the male praying mantis bother to mate when he knows that there’s a roughly 30% chance the act will culminate in her snacking on his head? That fatal ritual can be seen as one of nature’s examples of Freud’s theory of Eros and Thanatos, the competing drives for life and death, as the female praying mantis simultaneously creates and destroys. This phenomenon isn’t exclusive to mantises: monstrous female archetypes suggest that cishet men are, for some reason, strangely aroused by women who want to kill them. Maureen St. Vincent’s Maenads explores these archetypes of mythic female monsters in her work with a touch of camp and humor.

In Greek mythology, maenads were the female followers of Dionysus, whose name directly translates to “raving ones.” They were known to tear men apart in their ecstatic frenzy including, infamously, Orpheus, whom they killed when he refused to entertain them. Though they lend their name to the exhibition, St. Vincent also taps into archetypes such as sirens, harpies, selkies, witches, gorgons, and banshees. The artist’s sources of inspiration have one thing in common: These monsters represent women who cannot be domesticated or controlled, embodying the threat of the breakdown of the patriarchal social order. 

St. Vincent’s compositions channel the friction between the idyllic nature of California’s Central Coast and the campy maximalism of Hearst Castle in San Simeon and the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, resulting in a series of playful compositions filled with bright light and saturated color. She transports her maenads, originally mountain creatures, to the Pacific coast, creating luminous surfaces filled with signifiers of female sexuality and fertility, a sense of motion, and a generous dose of innuendo in soft pastel. 

In “First Born” (2023), the artist takes on the moment of conception, illustrating the moment in which the single sperm reaches the egg and penetrates the outer membrane. Such explorations continue in works such as “Mother of Two” (2023), in which a bunch of grapes suggesting pubic hair is flanked on both sides by chicken eggs that stand in for ovaries. Her playful takes on female physiognomy extend beyond the picture plane itself into the organic shapes of the colorful, customized frames, which resemble MRI slices of the abdomen and pelvic region. 

In “Sister Sister” (2024), twin maenads take the form of tentacle-like, disembodied legs that run, stomp, and splash through the surf. Fish jump and red fabric weaves between the creatures’ legs and through vulvar orifices whose appearance may be a nod to a “bearded clam,” a slang term for a vagina. Innuendos abound: I privately nicknamed “Wild Caught” (2023), in which strings of fish eggs suggestively rest in the crevice between a pair of legs, “Pearl Necklace.” As a whole, the work on view illustrates the life-giving forces of attraction, sex, and creation — but also hints at the darker half of those binaries in centering female monsters as their subjects, including repulsion, death, and destruction. To return to Freud for a moment, I’d suggest not penis-envy as a basis to misogyny but rather vagina-envy: male jealousy of a woman’s ability to both create and destroy life.

Maureen St. Vincent: Maenads continues at Nicodim (1700 South Santa Fe Avenue, #160, Los Angeles) through June 11. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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